This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New and Old.

Luke 5.33-39
Ash Wednesday
            Jesus tells these two tiny parables about the new in relation to the old.  In context, he is talking about the collision between his new teaching and the old traditions of his people.  But I think Jesus’ teachings are in some sense new in every generation.  They challenge every entrenched system in every era.
            And with these two parables he admits the incompatibility of his message with the old institutions of his people’s religion.  When he talks about the patch torn from a new garment in order to repair an old one, he means we can’t just take bits and pieces of his message and use them to fix the weak places in the current system.  To do that wrecks the new garment, that is, it undermines and destroys what Jesus is trying to get across.  And it really doesn’t fit onto the old garment.  The old system really cannot absorb or integrate isolated pieces of the new teaching.
            The same point comes through in the second little image, that of new wine and old wineskins.  New wine was still fermenting and expanding; were it put into old skins, they would burst.  A new wineskin, I guess, would be stronger and more able to expand to accommodate the new wine.
            He is saying that the new replaces the old, and that we have to choose between them.  We can’t have both at the same time with any integrity.  The old does not have the capacity to hold, contain, include, or express the new.  A new message requires new ways to communicate and organize it. 
            Then he adds that this is a difficult project because people are inherently biased towards the old to begin with.  Old wine is better, in the minds of most.  People prefer the tried and true, the tested, the venerable, and the traditional.  It is risky to choose the new, untried, experimental, innovative alternative.  If you put new wine in an old wineskin, even if the skin doesn’t burst, people will taste it and reject it because they will not get what they expect, what they were used to.
            This makes me wonder about what Jesus would say today.  What is he saying to us now?  What about our old “garments” and old “wineskins”?  That is to say, what of the containers in which we have put the good news: our traditional liturgies, doctrines, polity, practices, our accepted ways of thinking and acting, of doing mission and evangelism?  Are they suited to Jesus’ new wine just because they are Christian?  Or do they get old over time?  Do they, with age, become hard, inflexible, and congested?  Do they fail to contain or express the undomesticated, wild, uncontrolled Holy Spirit?

            My suspicion is that Jesus uses the terms “new” and “old” for a reason.  Something may be new today, but tomorrow, of course, it becomes old.  Because we are inevitably bound to time, our institutions and systems, our liturgies and theologies, do become old in the sense of no longer relating to a changed situation.  Everything is conditioned by the historical context in which it was produced.  Our activities are geared to address problems and promises of specific people in specific times and places.  We all know that often when we try to apply the same approach to a new situation it can have an effect wildly different to what it originally had. 
            Now, some things are relatively timeless.  Some practices and systems seem to work well in every generation.  Other approaches become obsolete and fall into disuse or worse become counter-productive.  What is important is whether the container, expression, or medium restricts, distorts, obstructs, or contradicts the message.  Are we doing things because we’ve always done them that way?  Or because they effectively communicate the good news in our time and place?
            I am not saying that we always have to get rid of stuff just because of its age.  I find great power and meaning in many traditional and ancient practices.  I am suggesting that we have to be doing constant evaluation of our systems, doctrines, and practices, to ensure that they are communicating the good news well today.  Do our wineskins hold the new wine of the good news?  Are our garments appropriate for the marriage feast of the bridegroom?
            We make this assessment by continual comparison of our practices with what Jesus himself does and teaches.  We heed always to be able to articulate how what we do expresses and reflects the good news of God’s love for the world we see in Jesus.  If we can’t, if were doing things that Jesus never commanded and even warned against or condemned, then we need to cease doing them.  Even if it’s something we’ve always done and our grandmother taught us how to do it and it’s in the Book of Order. 
            If something does not bring us closer to God, if it does not help us follow Jesus, if it does not open us to the working of the Holy Spirit, then we need to stop doing it.  No matter how “nice” it is or whom it is honoring, no matter how sentimental, satisfying, patriotic, traditional, or Presbyterian it may be, no matter whom it offends to change it.  Our only calling is to honor Jesus Christ.

            The original question Jesus is asked has to do with fasting.  Even this early in his ministry, Jesus is seen to be very different from other spiritual teachers, even from John the Baptizer.  It came down to eating.  Not only does Jesus share meals with disreputable people, folks everyone dismisses as hopeless sinners, those bad influences respectable people stayed away from, but his entourage seemed to be eating all the time.  It was one big party!  They never fasted or abstained from or renounced food, except perhaps for the required fast of Yom Kippur.  Jesus’ relationship to food and drink was a problem for many of his contemporaries.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.
            His response is that, while the Bridegroom is with them, his disciples should not fast.  Fasting was, among other things, an expression of mourning, bereavement, and grief.  He says that someday the Bridegroom will be gone, and their will be plenty of time for fasting then.
            So: on the one hand, Jesus says: do the things that celebrate the presence of the Bridegroom.  Jesus is the Bridegroom, of course.  Do the things that express the joy of the Lord’s release, healing, liberation, and blessing. 
            But when is the Bridegroom not with us?  Traditionally, the church has designated a formal fast in Lent, the season that leads up to Holy Week, when we remember the time when the Bridegroom was taken from us.  And that has its benefits, certainly.
            Jesus is always with us, of course.  But there are times when we are not with him.  Maybe we need to fast when the presence of the Bridegroom is lost or hard to see for us.  Maybe we need to realize when our actions and our loyalties and our possessions are keeping us separate from him.  Maybe those are the things we would benefit from giving up.  Maybe it’s when we reject and replace God in our hearts, when the Bridegroom therefore seems and feels so distant and remote from us, that we do need to fast.  We have to give up those things that serve only to demonstrate our godlessness, those things and ways in which we dishonor and disobey Jesus Christ.
            Maybe the whole point of fasting is bringing into our consciousness the attitudes, practices, and ways of thinking that force Christ out of our lives and make him invisible to us.  Because anything that we can’t give up, or that we find particularly difficult to give up, is probably getting in the way of our experience of the Presence of the Bridegroom.  It’s probably an idol that is killing us.

            This Lent, let’s look into our own hearts for whatever is blocking our full experience of God’s saving, forgiving, healing Presence.  It may be something we’re doing.  It may be something we are not doing.  It may be an attitude or a prejudice.  It may be a habit.  It may be some hard knot of bitterness or pain, a bad memory perhaps, that we let make us cold, hard, judgmental, condemning, unwelcoming, and dismissive. 
            Let’s realize that the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, has freed us from all that.  We are released and liberated.  We are healed and saved from all that would harm us.  We can let all that go.  We have the courage and the blessing inside us, we just have to plug into it.  We just have to let go of whatever is punishing us, whatever is separating us from God’s Light, and so let that Light flow through us freely, into all the world.

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